LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The pain of seeing Cavonnier get beat by a nose in his first Kentucky Derby nearly kept trainer Bob Baffert from returning to Churchill Downs.
He figured he would never again have a horse good enough to win on the first Saturday in May.
A year later, though, he won the Derby with Silver Charm and again the next year with Real Quiet. Since the mid-1990s, Baffert has won five Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns while becoming the face of horse racing.
“The Kentucky Derby is still the one,” Baffert said, standing outside his barn in front of a green-and-white sign freshly updated with the names of his Derby and Triple Crown winners. “I could win the Derby and just go home, that kind of race it is.”
He will have three chances to make history Saturday.
Baffert saddles Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster in the 145th Derby. None is the early favorite. That status belongs to Omaha Beach, another California horse that is trained by Richard Mandella, Baffert’s next-door neighbor at Santa Anita.
Game Winner and Improbable already have losses to Omaha Beach this year.
A sixth victory by Baffert would tie him with Ben Jones for most in Derby history.
“Ben Jones, the golfer?” Baffert joked.
“Plain Ben” Jones trained six Derby winners between 1938 and 1952. Jones and Baffert are among four trainers who have won the race four times.
Baffert equaled Jones’ feat of back-to-back Derby winners in 1997-98. He could do it again Saturday, having won last year with Justify, the colt that went on to give Baffert his second Triple Crown triumph.
“I hate thinking about things because then I feel like I’m getting super jinxed,” said the trainer who once got spooked at the sight of a black cat crossing his path on the backside of Churchill Downs.
Baffert has had three Derby starters in the same year twice before. In 2006, his entries finished ninth, 16th and 17th. In 1999, his horses were fourth, fifth and 11th.
“There’s nothing more exciting in the Derby than when you turn for home and your horses are in contention,” the 66-year-old said. “You just want to be proud that your horses show up.”
Baffert knew he was bringing the best horse to the Derby with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year. He hasn’t talked up his current trio the same way.
“It’s sort of wide-open,” he said about the 20-horse field.
Game Winner has the strongest resume of Baffert’s entries. He was last year’s champion 2-year-old male and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. The colt lost last month’s Rebel Stakes by a nose to Omaha Beach.
“He’s tough, he’s gritty. Coming to the Derby, you want a horse that’s resilient,” Baffert said. “He’s ready for a big effort.”
Improbable finished second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.
Roadster has overcome the most obstacles, having undergone throat surgery last year and quarter cracks in his hooves this year, similar to a human breaking a fingernail near the cuticle.
“I knew he was something really special,” said Baffert, who first touted the colt to TMZ.
The celebrity website’s camera crew caught Baffert outside a trendy West Hollywood restaurant last year.
He gets stopped in airports by people who recognize him by his white hair. His horses are routinely overbet simply because he trains them.
“I used to be the horse guy,” he said. “Now they know me by Baffert, so I’ve come a long way.”
When asked by strangers if he has won the Kentucky Derby, he does not like to say how many times. Perhaps because he still cannot believe the answer is five.
“I’m going in there like I’m trying to win my first Derby,” he said.